Tibet House, a tranquil setting at the foot of bustling Union Square is now hosting “The Weight of Happiness” inspired by Buddhism, folklore, and dreams. Works by one-time children’s book illustrators hold an air of naiveté, while subtly bearing the weight of the modern Tibetan plight.
The title of the show is “Weight of Happiness” which means (as was explained to me and reinterpreted here) that happiness itself bears a pressure (a weight) and no happiness is achieved without spiritual labor and an unlimited and undefined amount of struggle. In the work “Holy Hike” by Michela Martello, the viewer beholds two feet, representing the agents of the pressure of the body. A bodhisattva with tusks and many arms, or a woman wearing tusks as a fashion accessory and carrying a bouquet of dead arms, sits atop a field of dead elephants in Rima Fujita’s work. The political, humanitarian and environmental crises in Tibet are present in this show by way of understatement and with an innocence that goes along with the style of these two artists.
Being shown in a religious context, at the Buddhist Tibet House, which maintains a modest permanent collection of religious artworks, both artists re-interpret Buddhist symbols in a Western context. Geographically we have a lot of ground covered here, with one artist from Japan originally, New York raised and making art with a heavy Eastern influence and the other artist hailing from Italy, also living in New York and making heavily Eastern and Buddhist influenced artworks with a smattering of Western influence as well, in an Eastern bubble in the heart of the West.
New York City is the first place that comes to mind when one thinks about chasing the American Dream and I believe this is no accident that this show takes place here. The pursuit of happiness is meant to be re-interpreted in a sanctuary devoted to the immutable culture of a people displaced from their homeland, snugly tucked away in the center of the world. A reference to the exile of the Tibetan peoples, traditional Himalayan boots, pepper the wall and the viewer feels a personal banishment from his/her own happiness in pursuit of the American dream. As New Yorkers we follow a path of hard work and constant toil to achieve a goal hatched in childhood or adolescence, a path towards an ideal of happiness that only truly exists in our dreams and memories. As I wander around the room I can’t help but notice the rose with its thorns appearing and reappearing in both artists’ works on display, and this writer is taking from this repeated pairing of the beautiful with the deadly, the happiness with the gravity of modern guilt as proof that the pervading theme here revolves around the notion of balance of the spirit, of the universe.
I had the opportunity to view this show at Tibet House with one of the artists herself, Michela Martello, a student of Buddhism from Italy and now residing in New York City, who was kind enough to offer some basic explanation of the works on display. The show begins in the hallway before you enter the gallery, where there are pencil etchings of a New York City manhole with the words “Made in India” clearly visible. To those somewhat versed in Eastern philosophy, these etchings will bear a strong resemblance to the circular version of the Buddhist symbol of the Mandala. The Mandala is a two dimensional representation of the human mind or the universe, with a center and many pedals (or branches) reaching out from that center. The manhole is repeated in another of her works actually titled “Mandala” where it is accompanied by four baby tigers who are smiling at the viewer. She explains that these tigers are the guardians of one’s center, but they are smiling at you, so there is no need to be afraid.
The fusion of eastern philosophy with western pervades the works of both of these artists, touching on the ideas of interconnectedness, transience, friendship, kindness, peace and beauty. The presence of strong feminine spirits from Eastern philosophy such as Dakini, an embodiment of female purity, wisdom and beauty of energy, and Tara, who also represents female strength and benevolence, is felt throughout the show. You will also find Krishna, a guide for the spirit (Kanyouseemenow) as well as strong Western female figures such as the Greek goddess Venus (Pressure Makes Diamond).
Being with the artist herself I found myself focusing more-so on her work, as I had the hand that drew the lines by my side to guide me through my experience. Martello’s artworks are very tactile, featuring mostly non-framed hanging canvases, more like flags than paintings. She creates these tough pieces that she encourages others to touch, a far cry from most gallery artworks which rest safely beyond the viewer’s touch. Her process involves a destructive – creative approach, where she combines marble and acrylic, then primes the canvas, waits for it to dry, then begins to draw, then wets the canvas waiting for it to dry a second time then drawing more and then wetting the canvas again. She even throws some paintings in the washing machine on the hottest cycle, tearing paint off and giving a worn look which was a technique discovered by accident through an act of frustration and liberation, but is now a much beloved part of her process. She claims to be able to recognize when an artwork is not free, when the artist is thinking too much and not letting go and avoids that pitfall at all costs. Too much direction in an artwork is a bad thing according to her mantra and if the artworks themselves are any testament to that idea, then I tend to agree that she is definitely doing something right.
Weight of Happiness at Tibet House
September 6 – October 16
22 West 15th Street, New York, NY 10011
HOURS: MON-FRI 10AM-6PM
Article by Nick Rogers